A Northwest Based Literary Journal

A Week-Long Discussion on Diversity in Literature: Day 1

It shouldn’t have surprised us that we editors at TLR have, uh, diverse views on diversity. We all want it, but the reams of email conversation that were sparked by one off-hand comment a few weeks ago showed us that maybe we want it in different fashions, and for different reasons.

So we thought it would be a good exercise if each of us put our thoughts into a paragraph that might turn into a blog. And then we realized we needed to expand those paragraphs into separate blogs. Which led to us asking some of our contributors about what diversity in lit means to them—and in the end we received an absolute treasure of answers.

Each day this week we will post a blog from a Tahoma Literary Review contributor or editor. We’ll present perspectives you might never have considered. And as we hope the series will lead to a lively discussion, comments will remain open this week. Here’s who’s blogging:

Monday: Leland Cheuk
Tuesday: TK Dalton
Wednesday: Shaindel Beers
Thursday: Kelly Davio
Friday: Yi Shun Lai
Saturday: Stefen Styrsky
Sunday: Joe Ponepinto

Please bookmark our blog page and check in each day. We can’t wait to hear what you think about diversity in writing and reading.

Don’t forget to join in the conversation on Twitter and Facebook, too.

Cheers,

Your editors

 

Eliminating the Default Literary Setting: White, Male

By Leland Cheuk

It’s hard to discuss the thorny issue of diversity in literature without making it sound like authors of color are angry that publishing’s powers-at-be (undeniably mostly white) are not doing their part to essentially practice affirmative action as taste purveyors of literature. Opining that there needs to be more diverse books and stories is like opining that everyone who’s not rich needs more money. No one disagrees.

The more interesting question is how the world of publishing can become more diverse. What do we really want editors, agents, and writers to do? Launch IndieGogo campaigns? Force publishing companies to hire more people of color? Read one female writer per week? Make writers check a box for racial background so that editors can ensure the ethnic makeup of their lists resemble the cover of a college brochure?

One way we can get closer to our ideal state of diversity in literature is to hold ourselves accountable. As both an author and book reviewer, I consider myself, in a small way, a taste purveyor in the massive galaxy of literature, and accounting for diversity has changed my tastes over the past ten to fifteen years.

When I first started writing, I ate up contemporary American literary fiction—a paleo diet of white, male authors. Give me your Franzens, your Lethems, your Chabons, and your Philip Roths. I loved their books. I still consider their work influential in my own.

But in recent years, I’ve begun to realize that they don’t have to do the work that I have to do as a writer.

Because I write about American characters who happen to be Asian, the first thing I must do is to illustrate a level of cultural specificity that leaves no doubt in a reader’s mind that the character is authentically of whatever Asian descent I choose for my character. To do so, I have to posit my character vis-à-vis other races. The same applies to class. To make clear that a character is of a certain socioeconomic strata, one must buffer the character’s existence in relation to those of other socioeconomic strata. What I see in many acclaimed books these days by white, privileged authors writing about white, privileged characters is that no such buffering is necessary. If your default literary setting is white American male, your characters have the privilege of just being. Take James Salter’s recent novel All That Is, a book The New York Times called “a crowning achievement,” with a protagonist that possesses “grace.” After fighting in the navy in World War II, Salter’s protagonist becomes (ironically) a successful book editor in New York City, and traverses decades in one of the most diverse cities in America without meeting a single, significant person of color or a female that he doesn’t have an affair with. James Salter apparently participated in this survey.

Now that America’s minorities are becoming the majority, why shouldn’t the white American male author have to do what I, as an American Chinese writer, must do in a first draft?

As a book reviewer, I read many books that are simply too white. Often those same books involve the economically privileged. And often, in those books, the author seems ignorant of that lack of diversity hard-coded in their prose. If an author hasn’t done the work to delineate his character clearly vis-à-vis race, class, and gender in contemporary American society, the author hasn’t written the proverbial great American novel or “a crowning achievement.” He’s written a lesser work. If I were reviewing All That Is, I would say that as an author, Salter failed to fully employ his authority and observational skill. This reviewer, also intolerant of Salter’s use of the default literary setting, was quite a bit harsher.

What if every editor, agent, and writer held work accountable for diversity in this way? Wouldn’t we end up with books with more diverse universes? Wouldn’t the national awards lists at the end of the year look less like a celebration of six white guys, three white ladies, and a token author of color? Wouldn’t we, over time, have eliminated the default literary setting?

 

Leland Cheuk’s work appeared in TLR’s first issue. He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies at the MacDowell Colony, I-Park Foundation, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. His writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, and Pif Magazine. He has been a finalist for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, the Salamander Fiction Prize (judged by Edith Pearlman), and the national Washington Square Review fiction contest (judged by Darin Strauss). He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Categorised in: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry

9 Responses

  1. What a wonderful way to start this week of discussion! Thanks so much for offering a clear tactic for approaching an issue that, as you observe, “everyone agrees with” but which, all too often, folks in power don’t take precise practical steps to solve.

    Crucial too, to raise the issue of class — a topic that has often been left unspoken in American letters.

    Thanks again.

  2. I will admit that I need to think more about this because I read this before running off to teach class, but I find it interesting that of your “paleo diet of white, male authors. Give me your Franzens, your Lethems, your Chabons, and your Philip Roths,” three of them are Jewish. If 1.8% of the American population identifies as Jewish, I’m curious about the white male default?

    I wasn’t raised in a practicing household and grew up in a very rural town, but I’ve still had people comment that “These feel like Philip Roth characters,” and when I’ve read reviews of female Jewish writers’ works, I’m always a little surprised by the comparisons to Roth. I don’t have time to fully tease this out, but I’m wondering about our definitions of “whiteness” and “maleness,” etc. (I agree that I feel like Roth’s writing seems “masculine,” which is why I’m taken aback when female Jewish writers — myself included — are compared to Roth.)

    I’ll have to keep thinking about this. Thank you!

    • I’m always interested in reading Leland’s work (hi, Leland!). But yes, I was struck immediately, as Shaindel seems to have been, by the names cited within the group of “white, male” writers. Moreover, for me, Jewish writing–which itself can be as varied as writing within any other “niche”–is another strand that enriches any model of “diverse” literature.

  3. I’ve been blinded to the subject. I suppose because my shelves are full of diverse authors, in fiction and non-fiction without realizing it. If I were to arrange them chronologically, the topics and authors increasingly reflect a changing world view. It seems to the job of non- fiction to bring diversity to the forefront. I agree that fiction needs to catch up.

  4. Mr. Cheuk,

    I believe in, and hope for, an “ideal state of diversity,” in literature. You have given me much to consider. Thank you for your insights.

    Myra

  5. Congratulations, Shaindel. You’re now officially white!

    Actually though, I think there is a tendency in upper middle class circles to think of MOTs (MsOT?) as “white” (and not merely due to confusion over the fact that some of us have last names like Gilbert, Ross, Johansson, or Haley). The process of Caucasianization has previously been applied to Irish, Poles, Italians, Greeks, heck, even Germans in this country if you go far enough into the past. In some coastal areas of the USA, Asian-Americans may be undergoing reinterpretation along these lines, but I’ll defer to Leland on whether that’s just my perception, or something experienced by his community.

    (On the other hand, being considered white by upper middle class whites hasn’t prevented Jews from being a target of hate crimes. I imagine this may apply to other recently Caucasianized communities.)

  6. Aric,

    I think there is that “tendency,” but then there are also the moments of “othering” that are pretty clear. When I was in college (Yes, in the 1990s in Alabama, so not especially current or typical), we had to have all guest authors’ luncheons at the Jewish country club because the one next to the college only allowed WASPs to go there. I still don’t understand why country clubs were where we took guest authors, but that’s another topic.

    Or watching “Europa, Europa” in German class (also in college) and another student agreeing with the Nazis, “Jews are like that! I know; I work for a family of them!”

    Even earlier this week, I was on business travel when a colleague said, “You know how Jews are,” and I thought she was kidding and said, “Because I am one?” Oops. She wasn’t kidding.

    To be honest, I’m not sure if “Caucasianization” actually happens or if people sort groups into less or more acceptable minority groups. I have had people say things to me like, “Oh, I like Jews. You work hard,” meaning it as a favorable comparison to minorities who they see as working less hard.

    There is also the harm of positive stereotypes that come with some cultural backgrounds, such as no one assuming the quiet Asian girl/boy in the classroom might be having trouble because of the stereotypes that Asians are good students or that bad students act out and disrupt class.

    Just some thoughts. I hope I’m not wandering too far from Leland’s premise.

  7. Shaindel –
    I definitely thought twice about referring to Chabon and Roth as bluntly white, but the Jewish-American literary canon is so closely identified with the American literary canon, it’s hard to say contemporary Jewish-American male authors have been getting the diversity shaft. One of my first idols was Saul Bellow. The guy won a Nobel Prize the year I was born! In many ways, authors of color and other marginalized groups would love to be as closely identified with the American literary canon. In short, Caucasianize us!

    L

  8. Good points, all!

    If we think about a continuum of “whiteness” or “acceptability” (to use Shaindel’s term), it’s interesting to compare the way writers like Roth, Bellow, Chabon, and Lethem are seen as canonical, while other Jewish authors like Chaim Potok and Isaac Bashevis Singer are used to boost the diversity quotient of high school English classes. For some reason the former seem to be speaking for white upper middle class heterosexual males, AKA the default setting of lit fic (with possible exceptions like The Plot Against America), and the latter are ethnic. As Leland aptly pointed out, having this as the default setting allows for unobservant and lazy writing. Perhaps embracing diversity means there is no default setting. If you happen to be writing a white upper middle class heterosexual male POV, make it distinctive to the time and place and quirks of a given social circle.

    I’m fascinated by this discussion, because my playground — speculative fiction — is having a bruising turf war over diversity as we speak. Rather than having a genteel conversation, there are angry and threatful men who spend way too much time on the Internet fulminating over how their genre is being ruined by “savages” (no joke). They fail to realize that SFF is not merely the province of single or late-to-the-mating-game cisgendered heterosexual white males (as stereotypes would suggest) but has been enjoyed by women, people of color, and LGBT folks for a long time. More and more of these diverse fans are becoming authors in their own right, and professional organizations like SFWA are actively promoting their work, and nominating them for awards, and the backlash is outrageous and depressing. Our little chat about the perception of Jewish authors as white vs. ethnic would probably have led to rants about The Protocols of the Elders of New York Publishing or some such nonsense if this were an SFF discussion board.

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